They were peeved to say the least. Philosopher and economist Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens remembers it well: the first time she visited Witte de With with University College students (no… not the bars, but the contemporary art centre located in the same street). She smiles thinking back. There they stood, like stubborn teenagers, surrounded by abstract art. Basically saying ‘this is boring’ and ‘my four-year-old nephew could do this’. And: ‘what are we doing here, as academics?’
Sure, it took a while. But at a certain point, the grumbling turns into a discussion – although it’s difficult to name the tipping point. Someone asks a question. Or decides to give one of those installations the benefit of the doubt and starts reading the exhibition text. And yes, at the end of the afternoon you have four or five students – never the whole group, of course – whose conceptual framework has been left slightly unsettled. That moment – when, thanks to your initiative, a student starts seeing the world in a slightly different light – that’s the reward. She’s beaming while she tells the story.
I find Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens (1973) in the renovated neoclassical meeting room at Erasmus University College, in the heart of Rotterdam city centre. It’s still early, almost 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The street market just around the corner on Binnenrotte is already teeming with people. But here, in the former Education Museum building, I could hear the clack of her heels echo through the empty white marble lobby as she strode toward me.
It was time for a follow-up meeting. The thing is: we had already spoken before, for the same article – about the importance of education. But over the past few weeks she had given the subject a lot of thought, as well as discussing it with others. This had led to, in her words, a ‘number of fresh insights’ that would be a shame to leave out of ‘our story’ (a good example of her psychological makeup: she’s serious, driven, always looking for ways to do something different or better. Her insights develop in the course of her discussions with other people: she’s a strong advocate of ‘peer-reviewed education’, she will tell me later on).
Noordegraaf-Eelens is a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Erasmian’. After graduating with honours from EUR’s Economics and Philosophy programmes, she earned her doctorate in 2010 – in the midst of the financial crisis – with research into communication by central bank directors. She has a number of books to her name, with titles like De overspelige bankier (‘The Adulterous Banker’) and Op naar de volgende crisis (‘On our way to the next crisis’). She’s a member of all sorts of prestigious advisory bodies – as befits a highly-regarded scholar. But that’s beside the point today. Right now, she’s mainly interested in the state of higher education – because something’s going on there, and it doesn’t look good.
Convinced that they are right
As a lecturer, you basically have three responsibilities, she explains. You train someone until he or she is capable of performing solid scientific research, you prepare students for the employment market and you help them become members of society.
And specifically the latter point is one that we risk losing sight of at our universities. It’s quite common for academics to be… well, how to put it… convinced that they are right. Because after all, don’t they have knowledge on their side?
She remembers a conversation that she had in connection with her thesis, with then President Nout Wellink of the Dutch central bank. Those central bankers definitely knew what the best course of action was – including in a time of crisis. Except nobody listened to them. “Wellink told the country: you don’t have to worry, the Netherlands is in good shape. And there was enough reason to assume he was right. But the rest of the country didn’t believe him. And if everyone thinks that things have taken a wrong turn, then suddenly everything does go awry. This tells you that it’s not enough to have an answer ready for a particular problem. Occasionally, it’s more important to understand how someone else looks at that problem.”
According to Noordegraaf-Eelens, it’s the university’s duty to softly shake students out of their comfortable cocoons. Get rid of those blinders. That’s why she takes her students in tow, all across town, and gives them assignments that they need to work on ‘in the field’. At IMC Weekendschool, for example, where children from disadvantaged backgrounds can get additional schooling – an opportunity that the neediest families tend to pass up, however (after struggling with this, those students conclude: shit, this is more than just a marketing problem).
To understand the world beyond the lecture halls; to really understand it – in other words, not merely swoop in and offer a piece of non-committal advice, ‘consultancy style’ – you need to hit the road. She is absolutely convinced that universities can’t hack it on their own. To open doors to new perspectives, academia needs the creativity and involvement of the arts. Combine this with the scholar’s critical and analytical mind-set and you’ve got a gold mine.
Not that all her students are always thirsting for these experiences, though… not even the omnivores who tend to register for Erasmus University College’s Liberal Arts & Sciences programme. They aren’t always wild about working in teams either. So, she lets them learn it.
She doesn’t have to make those students smarter, she says. They’re already smart. They need to become involved and critical ‘world citizens’, who speak more than one ‘language’ and are aware that they’re only a small piece of the puzzle. Do you think the only people you need to solve the climate crisis are environmental scientists? Or that you can reform the financial system with just economists? It’s what UNESCO calls Education for Sustainable Development. Or, as Noordegraaf-Eelens puts it: you can’t save the world on your own.
Handful of peers
In the meantime, the university is hard on its way to becoming a research factory. Those aren’t her words – it’s a complaint heard more and more often in its halls and corridors over the past few years. Despite reform movements like Science in Transition and Rethink, scholarship seems more focussed than ever on publishing papers for a handful of international peers. The unspoken consensus seems to be that those aspiring to a strong university career need to focus on research. You try to spend as little time as possible on teaching. There’s even a name for it: onderwijslast (‘education load’). And you outsource these tasks to ever-younger colleagues with a temporary contract, or dig up last year’s PowerPoint slides for a second run. There’s a lack of structural funding – let alone time. Those with a heart for teaching schedule a share of their work in their spare time.
For the past three years, Noordegraaf-Eelens served as the head of both the Humanities and Economics & Business departments at Erasmus University College, the fast-tracked brainchild of the previous rector, Henk Schmidt. She has launched numerous partnerships with private companies, government agencies and Rotterdam non-profits, including a prestigious double degree programme with Codarts and Willem de Kooning Academy. And as one of the figureheads of the EUC, she is seen as a dream successor to project dean Maarten Frens (the university launched a new search in early 2018 after a previous round of applications did not yield a suitable candidate).
She was already standing in front of a full auditorium age 21 (“although it could also have been 22”). Coordinator Roland Speklé of the Costs and Profit subject had asked her at the time whether she would mind handling the math lectures. She hadn’t even graduated at that point, but it went OK. A mere three years later – in the 1996-1997 academic year – she was voted lecturer of the year.
She’s able to explain things in a way that people can understand them, she says. And she got straight to the point, asking students where there was room for improvement. One time she had made new sheets – they looked very fine indeed (this is back when they still used overhead projectors). So she exclaimed, proud as a peacock: well guys, do you like them or not?
Well, no, said the students, we actually like making the sum together with you on the board a lot more. Noordegraaf-Eelens: “I thought: how’s that possible?! But then I realised they were right. And that you always need to keep asking your audience what can be improved. If you hope they’ll eventually tell you of their own accord, you can wait until the cows come home. Working together also means taking the initiative for dialogue.”
A profession in its own right
Working together with colleagues at Willem de Kooning Academy and Codarts, she has developed a new education method and philosophy. Transdisciplinary is how she sums it up: a programme that combines the scientific method and the arts to arrive at new solutions for complicated social issues. When pressed for an example, she refers to the approach taken at Studio Roosegaarde, or how Blue City is experimenting with sustainability.
The format is a scaled-up version of problem-based learning – ‘project-based’ – in which the students themselves go in search of the problem. What does she need for this approach? She isn’t one to make a big fuss about it, but alright, she’d like to speak from the heart for a moment: why can’t the university show for once that academic education should be seen as a profession in its own right? A profession that calls for a unique set of skills, which are fundamentally different to the skills that make a good researcher.
That’s why she has developed a ten-day crash course for lecturers participating in her Rotterdam Arts & Science Lab (RASL). Because for a new transdisciplinary approach like this, you can’t make it on enthusiasm alone.
The university needs to create the right conditions that encourage individual lecturers to take teaching seriously. By means of the aforementioned ‘peer-reviewed education’, for example. Because it remains a bit strange to see that academic staff rely on evaluations made by students rather than fellow professionals.
Why not let colleagues see you in action? As well as people from the field. She’s already doing this: occasionally someone else joins her class for the day. But be sure to scale it up. Professionalise. And she’s itching to set up a project-based master programme, in addition to the double degree programme offered within the Rotterdam Arts & Science Lab (RASL). Art and science merged into a single master programme, completely multi-, sorry: trans-disciplinary. With a broad smile: “Yes, that’s where I’d start.”